23.12.2015 - 26.12.2015
Moving on from Bariloche, the next two days were basically spent on board the truck, travelling the 1386km south into Patagonia proper. The scenery changed dramatically from the verdant lake district to the flat and barren terrain lining the infamous Ruta 40 (part of the Pan American Highway running all the way from Alaska to Ushuaia) so, without much to look at, these long bus journeys consisted of a rotation of napping, toilet stops, twenty questions and good old fashioned singalongs, interspersed by an incessant argument over whether the windows should be open or closed. As you can imagine, a truck carrying 26 passengers (we'd picked up some more people on route) is bound to become fraught at times but luckily we generally rubbed along well together, with the unfortunate exception of window-gate.
Surviving 48 hours of driving, we arrived in El Chalten, a small town at the foot of the Fitz Roy massif, in time for Christmas Eve. Here we hiked 18km along the base of this apparently spectacular mountain, named after Robert FitzRoy (Captain of the HMS Beagle, who charted large parts of the Patagonian coast) but it's jagged peaks eluded us due to some low hanging clouds which give El Chalten its name of 'smoking mountain'. After rewarding ourselves with some well deserved beers in the local microbrewery, we had dinner altogether before heading to a little wine bar to see in Christmas Day. A very small town, I'm not sure the locals knew what had hit them as we crammed into the tiny space, brimming with festive cheer. Some of this overflowed into a nearby grocery store, where we ended up dancing up and down the aisles much to the shopkeeper's delight (still waiting to find fame on YouTube over this incident, somebody definitely caught it all on camera!).
Our tour leader organised Secret Santa for us the following morning and after a quick exchange of gifts we were back on the road again. Christmas lunch consisted of empañadas at a service station before we reached the town of El Calafate, situated on the shore of Lago Argentino (the largest lake in Argentina) and on the boundaries of Parque Nacional los Glaciares (the second largest national park in the country). It's obviously difficult being away from loved ones at Christmas but it's very easy to forget what day of the year it is when you're not surrounded by all the furore you get at home. Nonetheless we donned Santa hats and had a late Christmas dinner, without any of the usual trimmings but with plenty of good will to all men.
Boxing Day, however, more than made up for the slight anticlimax of the big day itself with a visit to the Perito Moreno glacier. This is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding, despite climate change, and is over 5km wide, 30km long and 60m high. Six inches of snow had fallen overnight and getting to the site was treacherous, with many of the vehicles ahead of us having to put ice grips on their tyres. We then had to descend a series of wooden platforms, also covered with snow, but when finally the glacier came into view, it was quite possibly one of the most breath-taking things I've ever seen. Words or photos can't do it justice and taking a boat onto the lake to get up close to this ancient, creaking, bright blue block of ice was one of the best Christmas presents I could have received.
Returning to El Calafate later that day we experienced the Patagonian extremes of weather we had been warned about for the first time - if you ask a local what the weather forecast is going to be like, they will answer "It's ok... For now". This is because it is SO changeable and only six hours after we'd trudged through ankle deep snow, dressed in thermals, hats and gloves, we were back to glorious sunshine and flip flops, with all traces of the day's earlier freeze gone. Continuing our journey ever more south, who knows what will be in store for us next...